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Welcome to Shelbyville: Loving, Fearing Thy Neighbors

• May 22, 2011 • 4:00 AM

In the documentary film “Welcome to Shelbyville,” a small Tennessee town deals with an influx of residents from Somalia.

In news headlines and broadcast bulletins, the word “Somali” is inevitably followed by a dread-inducing plural noun: “pirates” or “warlords” or “terrorists.” So it’s no surprise that natives of the war-ravaged East African country of Somalia are viewed with fear and suspicion by many, if not most, Americans.

When significant numbers of Somali refugees moved to Shelbyville, Tenn., (population 16,000) to work at the nearby Tyson Foods processing plant, the town’s residents reacted with deep suspicion. “We don’t know what diseases they have,” a former mayor frets in the opening minutes of the new documentary film Welcome to Shelbyville. Intensifying his fear is the fact the newcomers are Muslims, which in his view means: “They want to kill us.”

That lack of political correctness makes Shelbyville an ideal setting for a film about immigration and assimilation. When a feisty black resident named Beverly Hewitt visits the home of a Somali immigrant family, she minces no words, informing them, “Most folks think you’re plum mean,” and asking, “You’re not terrorists, right?” In Shelbyville, unspoken fears get spoken and sometimes even assuaged.

Kim Snyder’s documentary, which premieres on PBS May 24 as part of the Independent Lens series, provides a mosaic-like portrait of a town in transition. The film begins just before the election of Barack Obama, which excites some residents and worries others. But their immediate concern is the Somali families who have recently arrived, unannounced. Legal residents who came to the U.S. as part of a refugee-resettlement program, they found temporary homes in Nashville before migrating to this rural area in search of blue-collar jobs.

“I always imagined America as a place where I could work, find a better education and live peacefully,” says Somali Hawo Siyard, sounding strikingly similar to the immigrants who came before her. One longtime local who can sympathize is Miguel Gonzalez, a Mexican native (and American citizen) who moved to the area years earlier to work in an auto plant. His family wasn’t welcomed with open arms, either.

Gonzalez and Hewitt are both part of a grassroots organization called Welcoming America that works with communities to foster better relations between locals and their foreign-born neighbors. The film chronicles attempts to begin and sustain a dialogue between newcomers and old-timers. This effort involves occasional field trips: Shelbyville calls itself the “Walking Horse Capital of the World,” and one amusingly incongruous image finds colorfully dressed, headscarf-wearing Somali women taking in their first horse show.

One problem, at least as the Somalis perceive it, is the local newspaper; they view its coverage as slanted against them, emphasizing the negative. In a decidedly uncomfortable scene, reporter Brian Mosely — internal fight-or-flight system fully engaged, by the look of his awkward body language — visits a Somali home to explain his role and better understand their viewpoint. We later learn his coverage of the controversy has won awards.

“This is a lot of change for a small town to grapple with,” Snyder says. “I can understand why it’s tough. They have no context for what’s happening. There isn’t anybody going to these places and saying, ‘Here’s a little background about these people who are coming.’ Hopefully the film will help in this regard. It’s being shown in a lot of communities that mirror the demographics of Shelbyville.”

The hourlong film spends a lot of time with the town’s religious leaders, who are trying to help congregants reconcile their faith (which instructs them to love their new neighbors) with their fears. The most enthusiastic group is the Baptists, which seems odd until you realize they view these newcomers as potential converts. “The mission field has been brought to us!” one enthusiastic believer declares.

Watch the full episode. See more Independent Lens.

“There are a lot of perspectives in this little town,” Snyder notes. “This [demographic shift] entails some loss for most parties, but also potential opportunities. How you define those losses and opportunities are different for each group.” That understanding is shared by the local sheriff, who seems bemused as he points out that his tiny town has become “one of the most culturally diverse places in America.” Try to imagine one of his Civil Rights-era predecessors saying the same, and you realize we really have made some progress.

“I think it is a hopeful film,” Snyder says. “I’m even more hopeful after seeing how it’s being used. Some people in Corvallis, Ore., wrote me after the local mosque was bombed and asked if they could show the film there. There have been so many reactions like that, where it’s been shown in places where there is tension [between locals and newcomers], or where they simply say, ‘This is our story.'”

And that reaction isn’t exclusive to the United States. Snyder has shown the film to receptive audiences in European cities grappling with immigration. And as part of a State Department program designed to expose people around the world to American ideals and culture, she brought the documentary to Nigeria last August.

“The first time I saw it with an audience was in Kano, a majority-Muslim city in northern Nigeria,” she said. “People were so appreciative of the film. Christian-Muslim killings had taken place in a neighboring town two weeks prior. From their perspective, the fact the people of Shelbyville weren’t turning to violence meant a lot. They commented, ‘Look what this small town was able to do!'”

Whether you’re in urban Nigeria or rural Tennessee (which was Klan country only a half-century ago), it’s easy to caricature newly arrived immigrants. But it’s also easy to stereotype longtime locals who fear for the cohesion of their communities. Welcome to Shelbyville avoids falling into either trap, portraying all its characters with sensitivity and empathy. “I hear they’re very aggressive,” one local man says of the Somalis. “But maybe a year ago, they were fighting for food. They had to be aggressive.”

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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